Conservationists' pre-election nightmares became real Nov. 8. A landslide gave Republicans a majority of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and turned already conservative state legislatures in the West further to the right.


"It's not just the reversal, it's the size of the reversal," says Bruce Farling, director of the Montana chapter of Trout Unlimited. "We may not have the guns to fight defensively."


Environmentalists are bracing for an onslaught of anti-green legislation. They fear that industry groups will use their emboldened corps of political allies to weaken laws protecting wildlife and wildlands from mining, grazing, logging and commercial development. Many observers predict that environmental bills that had chances of passing in the 103rd Congress will be dead on arrival in the 104th. These include Superfund, the Safe Drinking-Water Act, the 1872 Mining Law reform and a half dozen other progressive or reform attempts.


In Washington, D.C., the staffs of environmental groups are already starting to transform themselves from insiders to outsiders, eavesdropping on Republican plans to gut environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. This is not an unfamiliar role, given a 12-year-long guerrilla war with the Reagan and Bush administrations.


They are also sounding tougher than they have in months. "If Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich misread the election returns as giving them open season on environmental protection laws, then they are making a tragic mistake," warns Dan Weiss, Sierra Club's political director in Washington, D.C.


What environmental legislation emerges depends in large part on the gatekeepers of congressional committees. Republican leaders say they will cut a number of committees by the first of the year as part of their promise to streamline government; there has been talk, for example, of merging the House Natural Resources Committee with the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. Environmentalists say the outlook is bleak no matter what structure emerges, because lawmakers hostile to a green agenda will take charge.


Alaska Rep. Don Young, R, who had a 2 percent voting record on environmental issues in the 103rd Congress, according to the League of Conservation Voters, is poised to take the helm of the House Natural Resources Committee, now headed by California Democrat George Miller. Young is most passionate about opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, while Miller is a staunch advocate for ending public-land subsidies to mining, timber and ranching interests.


Nevada Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, R, a consistent opponent of public-lands reforms, may assume the chair of the subcommittee on minerals which oversees mining on public lands.


Utah Rep. Jim Hansen, R, is positioned to head the subcommittee on public lands and national parks, which decides policy on wilderness, public-lands mining and grazing, and national parks. He would replace the environmental protection-minded Bruce Vento, a Minnesota Democrat.


Just before the election, Hansen said he would like to form a "parks closing committee" that would recommend shutting units of the national park system. He cited Great Basin National Park on the Utah-Nevada border. "If you've been there once, you don't need to go again," he told AP.


The Senate leadership looks much the same. Alaska's Frank Murkowski, another pro-development conservative, is likely to chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee now presided over by Bennett Johnston, D-La. Johnston has been both villain and hero for environmentalists. He pushed hard for mining reform last year, but is a long-time proponent of new oil development in Alaska's wildlands and burying nuclear waste in Nevada.


Idaho's Larry Craig, R, who carried the ball for the mining industry's "reform" bill, could head the subcommittee overseeing any action on the issue.


Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, who will again chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, a post he held from 1980 to 1986, can again move to direct federal dollars to major Northwest projects. Environmentalists worry about Hatfield's power to determine timber sale levels on federal lands through appropriations to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. During the 1980s, Hatfield used his clout to keep timber sale levels high and to push through "riders' overruling court injunctions that blocked logging, although he would not have been successful without help from some Democrats in the region.


Hatfield hinted at the kind of power he might wield on the Appropriations Committee when he said that a deal might now be cut to provide a short-term supply of federal timber to the Northwest in exchange for reauthorization of an amended Endangered Species Act. "That can be be a strong leverage to call off the dogs who say down with (the act)," Hatfield told the Eugene Register-Guard a few days after the election.


The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which will consider legislation reauthorizing the Endangered Species Act, could turn out to be a bright spot for conservationists. But the man slated for the committee chair, moderate Republican John Chafee of Rhode Island, is under attack from fellow party members. Congress Daily quoted Texas Republican Phil Gramm saying, "John Chafee's views were not endorsed last night (Nov. 8). I think Chafee and others will look at the results and get on the team." Environmentalists fear that conservatives will successfully lobby party members to bypass Chafee in favor of Wyoming Sen. Al Simpson, R, for the chair.


Not all environmentalists are down-in-the-mouth about the ascendancy of the Republicans. Andy Kerr, executive director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, says the new Republican leadership, while obviously anti-environmental in its disposition, isn't terribly different from the Democratic leadership it replaces.


House Speaker Tom Foley "was horrible on the environment. Always has been," says Kerr. "His defeat ... is the single best news a salmon could hope to hear." Foley has been a staunch opponent of drawing down the reservoirs in the Columbia Basin to help endangered salmon because it would hurt his district's aluminum industry, which relies on cheap hydroelectric power from the dams.


Other Western Democrats have also been less than stellar, Kerr says. "Too many environmentalists have let the Larry LaRoccos, Pat Williamses, Les Aucoins and their kind slide. These "liberals' do anti-environment things, but we let them do it because we fear worse. The good news is the worst is here, and if environmentalists are smart, we can turn it to our advantage."


Kerr says environmentalists need to do a better job of nurturing Republicans who are good on the environment.


But the immediate future for environmentalists seems likely to be filled with defensive battles. If they fail to stop the Republican leadership from passing anti-environmental legislation, they can always hope for a presidential veto. But would Clinton kill bills as vigorously as his Republican predecessors?


"I don't think we can count on the president to veto bad bills," says Mike Matz, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "I would hope that the election would show the administration that it needs to change its approach and come out swinging, but I expect more capitulation."


If there is a silver lining in the election, it could be its shock value. The conservative landslide may energize an environmental movement that even its leaders say has become complacent in recent years.


"This election is a wake-up call to the American people," says Sierra Club's conservation director, Bruce Hamilton. "It's time to step up to the front lines or the things that you care about will be lost."


*Paul Larmer